Sharon B. Megdal, Ph.D., director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, was not always interested in water. She studied economics, planning to work in public policy, and became immersed in the world of water as part of that journey. “A lot of people just assume that I was always a water person,” she says.
Megdal, 68, was born and raised in New Jersey. Her parents, both children of immigrants, were heavily involved in their synagogue.
Megdal and her siblings were all first-generation college students. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics at Rutgers University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics from Princeton University. She moved to Arizona in late 1978 for as an assistant professor position in the UArizona economics department.
In 1985, Megdal was a surprise appointment by then-governor Bruce Babbitt to fill an empty slot on the Arizona Corporation Commission, normally an elected role. The commission regulates private utilities, and it was through this position that she was introduced to water issues.
“After that, in the late ’80s, things kind of cascaded and I got more and more involved in water matters,” Megdal says. “Then in the early 1990s I ran a regional water district and that’s when I really got my feet wet in water.”
As executive director for the now-defunct Santa Cruz Valley Water District, Megdal worked on some issues related to the Central Arizona Project, which brought a huge supply of Colorado River water to the region. The big question was how the region would make use of that water. “It was almost literally like drinking from the fire hose,” Megdal says. “I was in the midst of one of the most interesting times in the city of Tucson’s experience when it came to water supply.”
These experiences solidified Megdal’s interest in water supply and policy. She joined the WRRC in 2002 as associate director and became director in 2004.
Making connections in the Middle East
At the WRRC, Megdal’s goal has been to build bridges; more specifically, to build a bridge between the arid environments of the Southwest, and those of Israel and Jordan.
In 1987, before she had fully plunged into water research, Megdal had visited Israel. In 2006 she went again and after returning from that trip, she became even more rooted in her Jewish heritage.
She celebrated an adult bat mitzvah in 2007 at Temple Emanu-El, which made her more aware of how her upbringing had made an impact on her life decisions.
“What’s a driver for me is trying to make a difference in the real world as best I can, given my training and my opportunity, and I would say that that to me is a reflection of my Jewish upbringing,” Megdal says.
Since 2006 she has been back to Israel 15 times. “I have to keep a spreadsheet,” Megdal laughs. “What occurred to me in the early 2000s as I got to interact with some researchers from Israel is that there are a lot of similarities between the regions, meaning Israel and Arizona.”
In 2009 Megdal and colleagues at the University of Arizona hosted a two-day Arizona-Israeli-Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop (AzIP for short), which included researchers from Arizona, the Colorado River Basin, and Mexico, along with those from Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
“We decided to put together a book of papers after the workshop,” Megdal recounts. “Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges” was published in 2013.
Two examples of meaningful interactions involve water diplomacy and on-the-ground agricultural practices, respectively. In 2016, Megdal helped arrange meetings of high-level federal U.S. and Mexican water officials with their Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian counterparts. The testing of a new Israeli drip irrigation technology in Arizona is the result of a November 2019 panel she organized for a conference in Tel Aviv.
Among her current activities, Megdal serves on the board of governors for the joint institute for food, energy, and water security established through the Jewish National Fund to connect the drylands expertise of the University of Arizona and the Arava region of Israel.
“Sharon has a strong head for academic theory, but her feet are planted firmly on the ground, or more accurately, in the water,” says David Lehrer, executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “All over the world, water is becoming scarce and it is often a shared resource requiring cooperation, efficiency, and quality control. Sharon is able to bring together the different disciplines necessary to enable complicated water allocation systems to provide humans with needed water security.”
For Megdal, professional and personal gratification comes from “being able to connect people who otherwise might not have been able to connect,” she says. “I think there’s real value in comparing lessons learned from water management experiences, both positive and negative. Although Israel is this great start-up nation with many accomplishments, there are still challenges.”
Megdal is currently researching ground water and aquifer recharge, both of which the Southwest region relies heavily on. She also teaches a class, “Water Policy in Arizona and Semi-arid Regions,” and advises graduate students. She has served on the board of the Central Arizona Project for almost 12 years, but is not seeking a third term in November.
Robert Varady, research professor of environmental policy at the UA and a collaborator on “Shared Borders, Shared Waters,” calls Megdal “very analytical and well-informed.”
“She is unafraid to express her views, which she does diplomatically,” he says.
Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.